Kamala Harris Tries to Improve Southeast Asia Ties as China Prods From Sidelines

Kamala Harris Tries to Improve Southeast Asia Ties as China Prods From Sidelines

The vice president made pointed statements against Beijing; Chinese officials responding in kind

Vice President Kamala Harris said the Biden administration would continue to call out China for its aggressive maritime claims in the South China Sea but doesn’t want a conflict with Beijing, as she sought to strike a balance with countries in the region caught between the rival powers.

“We welcome stiff competition. We do not seek conflict, but on issues like the South China Sea, we are going to speak up,” Ms. Harris said Thursday, as she wrapped up a weeklong trip to Southeast Asia. She has offered a string of pointed statements against Beijing during visits to Singapore and Vietnam, where she made the case for stronger economic and security ties with both countries.

But Ms. Harris’s remarks underscored the challenges the administration faces in forming partnerships with countries in the region that are trying to strike a balance in their relationships with U.S. and China. Throughout her trip, Chinese officials and state media challenged her and U.S. policy—even on days Ms. Harris didn’t mention China by name.

“She couldn’t say anything without them responding,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In fact, she couldn’t even give vaccines without them giving a bigger number.”

Ms. Harris said on Wednesday that the U.S. would donate an additional one million Covid-19 doses to Vietnam. On Thursday she visited the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, where the first shipment of 270,000 doses from the U.S. had arrived hours earlier. Vietnam, which has fully vaccinated less than 3% of its population, has seen a surge in cases over the past six weeks, driven by the Delta variant.

“There are no strings attached,” Ms. Harris said, standing in front of boxes of vaccine.

Before the vice president arrived in Hanoi, Beijing sent its ambassador to meet with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, the Chinese embassy disclosed Tuesday. The Chinese offered two million vaccine doses, Vietnamese state media reported, adding that Mr. Chinh said the country “does not ally with one country to fight against another.”

Mr. Hiebert said that China’s donation showed a “little bit of Chinese anxiety.”

The vice president repeatedly called out China during her trip, including in a meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, during her trip. She also said the U.S. would help Vietnam build up its maritime-security capabilities and support sending a U.S. Coast Guard cutter to the South China Sea, where Vietnam and China have competing claims. Beijing has built up a massive presence by militarizing artificial islands and using civilian fleets.

“We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” Ms. Harris told Vietnam’s president on Wednesday.

Ms. Harris’s trip was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to reaffirm its engagement in the region, as China seeks to increase its influence and expand its claims in the South China Sea. Her visit to the Indo-Pacific, as the U.S. makes a chaotic exit from Afghanistan, showed the administration’s shift in foreign-policy priorities—toward containing China and away from two decades of military engagement in the Middle East.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration should back the bipartisan bill he has co-sponsored that would impose sanctions on Chinese individuals and entities for certain activities in the South China Sea and East China Sea. “It is important to highlight Beijing’s aggression, but words are not enough,” Mr. Rubio told The Wall Street Journal. “We need action.”

China has also been using the situation in Afghanistan to question the U.S.’s credibility.

The evacuations in Afghanistan, which have drawn parallels to the American exit from Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War, have captured the attention of U.S. allies around the world and overshadowed Ms. Harris’s trip.

“The U.S. arbitrarily launched military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, while claiming to defend the interests of smaller countries,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin. “I think it would be much more credible if the U.S. said it was trying to maintain its hegemony and uphold its own interests.”

Ms. Harris also told Vietnamese officials in her public comments that the U.S. would like to upgrade its relationship with the country from a “comprehensive” to a “strategic” partnership, which could streamline high-level diplomatic access and defense cooperation. Vietnam has taken a cautious approach to discussions about an upgrade.

As Ms. Harris and Chinese officials exchanged rebukes, a new assessment by U.S. spy agencies of the origins of Covid-19 was delivered to the White House Tuesday. The report didn’t yield a definitive conclusion on whether the new coronavirus jumped to humans naturally, or via a lab leak, in part because of the lack of detailed information from China.

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